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Mike Meno

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Attempts to Ban Fake Marijuana Are Further Proof of Prohibition's Failure

Posted: 09/25/10 09:37 PM ET

Perhaps as early as next week, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm is expected to sign a series of bills that would outlaw K2 -- one of several names given to synthetic cannabinoids ("fake marijuana") that are sprayed onto different herbs and sold legally in smoke shops across the country.

Such products are labeled "not for human consumption," but people use them anyway, because, when smoked, they can mimic the effects of marijuana, but they don't show up on drug tests. More importantly, unlike marijuana, K2 is legal to buy -- though perhaps not for long. In just six months, 13 different states have moved to ban the substance, fueled primarily by reports of K2's adverse health effects. With Granholm's signature, Michigan would become the 14th.

At first glance, these actions might appear to be a reasonable way to protect the public from a dangerous substance. But -- as I'll explain -- they're really just a testament to the folly of our nation's marijuana laws.

First, some background: K2 was created in 1995 by John Huffman, a chemistry professor at Clemson University who was researching the effects of cannabinoids, marijuana's unique, active components. Only in the last year has it become widely available and used by consumers. Now, the effects of K2 might indeed be exaggerated in order to further demonize the substance (as a marijuana reformer, I'm all too familiar with this phenomenon), but papers across the country have published reports of K2 users suffering from accelerated heart rates and increased blood pressure, sometimes even ending up in the emergency room.

It's unclear whether these reactions are caused by the substance itself, or the various herbal concoctions that vendors spray it on. What is clear, however, is that natural, whole-plant (aka, "real") marijuana has no such adverse effects on users. In fact, a recent study from the University of Michigan showed that marijuana leads to fewer emergency room admissions than virtually any other legal or illegal drug.

Put more simply, our country's insane prohibition on marijuana -- a safe, non-toxic, and well-studied drug -- is now leading consumers to experiment with lesser-known, and potentially much more dangerous, alternatives.

Professor Huffman himself has said that people who use K2 are "idiots." But are they? Being arrested and convicted for marijuana possession can bring life-long consequences, such as the loss of a job or financial aid for college. Using K2 comes with no negative consequences -- except, perhaps, to one's health.

All this K2 nonsense is simply one more reason -- alongside more important issues like sensible law enforcement, personal liberty, racial justice, and potential tax revenue -- why America needs a legal, regulated marijuana market. Whereas the full health effects of K2 are largely unknown because they haven't been studied, marijuana is perhaps the most studied plant in history -- one that a former DEA judge once called "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man." In a regulated market, consumers would know exactly what they're purchasing and putting into their bodies. This is not the case when somebody buys K2 -- or one of its various knockoffs -- that's been sprayed onto some mystery plant matter.

I don't have a solid opinion one way or the other as to whether K2 should be banned or regulated like other drugs. But I do know this: The only reason anyone uses K2 and not marijuana is because K2 is legal and marijuana is not. It's as simple as that. Make marijuana legal, and few, if any, consumers will waste their time seeking out K2.

It's for this reason that K2 bans are misguided, because they don't address the core issue: millions of Americans want to use marijuana, or something that will mimic its effects, and if they're afraid about illegal means of doing so, they will continue to seek out legal alternatives. In fact, the Associated Press has reported that in states where K2 has been banned, merchants have simply changed its name, altered its chemical makeup slightly, and continued to sell it to customers. That's right: people in those states are now seeking legal alternatives to the legal alternative to marijuana. And round and round we go.

Californians will have a unique chance to end this lunacy once and for all this November, when they vote on Proposition 19, which would allow adults to grow and possess -- and localities to regulate -- natural, whole-plant marijuana. If Prop. 19 does pass, I have a feeling there won't be much of a market for K2 in the Golden State.

Oh, and just for kicks, what does Huffman, the creator of K2, think about attempts to ban it?

"It's not going to be effective," he told the AP. "Is the ban on marijuana effective?"